The odds of making it through the Northwest Passage

If I were a betting man, I would bet that we’d make it through the fabled Northwest Passage. Adventure Canada has had good success with our ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Eight of the last ten attempts have made to Kugluktuk.

image: The Guardian

However if you wanted me to bet on John Franklin’s chances in 1845, I would be more hesitant.

There were times when it didn’t look promising for us. Ice sloshes back and forth in the channels and it takes a skilful captain to pick a way through the ice.  Some days one path would open up only to close up the next.

Many explorers tried to find the Northwest Passage but probably the most well-known was Sir John Franklin. He left England aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. We visited the grave sites on Beechey Island where two of his men perished where they overwintered.

Franklin is not famous because he made it but because of the mystery surrounding why he didn’t. Many others, including those sent to rescue him, found out more about the Arctic and lived to pass on the information.

One reason Franklin didn’t make it was bad luck. Jerry Kobalenko, onboard author of books on Franklin, told me that if only he had gone down Prince Regent Inlet instead of Peel Sound, he might not have got stuck in the ice and perished.

We were faced with Franklin’s choice -Prince Regent Inlet or Peel Sound? The original plan was Prince Regent Inlet but when ice began to pile up there, we chose Franklin’s route down Peel Sound where the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended up at the bottom of the sea. There was ice in Peel Sound but not as thick.

You would think that a rapidly-warming arctic would make navigation easier. But Canadian Coast Guard representatives aboard said that warming has only loosened existing ice so it can shift around, making it less predictable. Without the benefit of reliable ice charts, we too might have found ourselves blocked.

While minor compared to Franklin’s, we did face some challenges in Peel Sound. The Ocean Endeavour has a strengthened hull but not strong enough to break through the ice that faced us. The captain called the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox to clear a path for us.

Unexpectedly, while we waited for the Terry Fox to arrive, one of the passengers became ill and although not in critical condition needed medical treatment. So we had to turn back up Peel Sound towards Resolute, which would take 12 hours one way. From there, the passenger could be flown out.

The risk in this delay is that clearing ice for passenger ships is low on the list of priorities for the Terry Fox. If they were called some emergency, we could be out of luck. While the Terry Fox was available now, who knew about 24 hours from now when we got back?

Fortunately, it didn’t take that long. Canadian Search and Rescue sent a ship from Resolute to meet us; the passenger was transferred, we returned south more quickly, and the Terry Fox was still available. The only delay was waiting for another ship to catch up so the icebreaker could escort us both in a convoy through the ice.

Soon we were safely through Peel Sound, leaving the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in their watery crypts, and on our way to Kugluktuk.

The migration of Canada’s Inuit to Greenland

I’m aboard the Ocean Endeavour, east of Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, approaching Lancaster Sound. We left Kangerlussuag, Greenland, ten days ago and we’re headed for the Northwest Passage.

image: GoodNewsFinland

Sailing through Arctic is tricky, so making it to our destination in Kugluktuk is not a certainty. The ship’s captain has been studying ice flow charts and with a bit of luck we’ll actually make it. Last year they didn’t. While the Ocean Endeavour is not an icebreaker, the bow is strengthened enough to plough through ice if it’s not too thick.

Along with the 168 passengers and 100 crew members, there are 33 scientists, artists, photographers and Inuit “culturists” aboard. The Inuit are from both Canada and Greenland.

We watched a 90 minute documentary by Canada’s National Film Board titled Vanishing Point. It featured one of the culturists aboard who also narrated it in Inuktitut. The film traces the trek of an Inuit band from Baffin Island to Greenland 160 years ago. It’s a compelling, yet tragic tale.

I spoke to the narrator of the film, Navarana Kavigak, an Inuit from Greenland, about the trek.

In1856, an Inuit leader named name Qillarsuaq left Baffin Island with a band of 50 followers. Qillarsuaq was a charismatic leader, a shaman (angakkuq), and he was on the run. He had killed a man and according to Inuit justice he could be killed anytime, without warning, by the victim’s family.

Qillarsuaq’s run from vengeance took him across the then ice covered Lancaster Sound to Devon Island. From there they travelled north-eastwards along the coast of Ellesmere Island by dog sleds. They struggled through rough and broken ice, waiting for the right conditions to cross deep bays. Qillarsuaq and his followers endured treacherous terrain, climbing and descending glaciers, all the while hunting to provide food and skins for clothing. The journey took several years.

I asked Navarana how Qillarsuaq knew where he was going. Obviously, he had no map of Greenland. There are two versions. Navarana told me one:

“He came into himself and his mind was travelling across the land. His vision directed him to Greenland.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a dryer version. Qillarsuaq met Captain Edward Inglefield and his Greenlandic interpreter. Inglefield was on Devon Island in search of the missing Arctic explorer John Franklin and he knew Greenland well. Through his interpreter, Inglefield told Qillarsuaq where to find some Greenland Inuit (Inughuit).

Some of the group began to doubt Qillarsuaq’s vision of a new world and turned back to Devon Island.

The remainder, about one-half the original number, ended up near Etah in northern Greenland near where Navarana was born.

Qillarsuaq found Navarana’s ancestors in desperate condition. Navarana told me that their numbers had been decimated by disease, possibly spread by European whalers. Her people were on the verge of extinction. They had lost the knowledge of how to make kayaks, fish spears, and bows and arrows.

Qillarsuaq re-introduced these tools and shared knowledge about hunting and surviving in the Arctic. He brought Navarana’s people back from the brink of starvation. Through the gift of technology and intermarriage, the two groups integrated. Qillarsuaq was highly respected by the Greenland Inuit. Navarana referred to him as “Great Quillaq (The Great One).”

Only seven years later, an aging Qillarsuaq decided to head back to Baffin Island. He died in the first year of the return,. The remaining followers faced starvation and only five survived the trip.

One of those survivors was Navarana’s great, great grandmother. Many families of northwestern Greenland trace their ancestry to the allarsuit -the Canadian migrants.

 

 

Satellites make good neighbours

A lot of fuss is being made of the Apollo 11 landing of a man on the moon one-half century ago but not so much about Canada’s launch of the Alouette 1 at the same time. Canada was a leader in space -the third in the world to launch a satellite.

Alouette 1. Image: National Post

And Canada was the first to launch a satellite in 1972 that would allow television broadcasts to be broadcast from coast-to-coast-to coast: the Anik A1.

Anik A1 personally affected me. As a microwave technician, I worked on microwave stations that used to be to only way to get signals across Canada. Now the microwave system had been made redundant by the Anik A1.

As more countries launched satellites, their use expanded beyond communication to rescue. This capability is especially important for countries in the Arctic Circle like Canada where populations are sparse and the environment harsh.

Canada, France, the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperated to pool the resources of dozens of satellites. The first rescue took place in 1982 in northern B.C. just weeks after the Soviet Union launched COSPAS-1.

With the belligerence of the current U.S. administration, it’s hard to imagine that they could cooperate on anything.  But the original agreement, forged when tensions with the USSR were high, is still in force. Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, says:

“Yet, satellites-based search and rescue exists only because of a remarkable exercise in Cold-War co-operation (Globe and Mail, July 27, 2019).”

After the Cold War ended, co-operation continued with joint military exercises between Arctic countries. One, called Vigilant Eagle, had U.S., Russian, and Canadian jets responding to a mock hijacking of a commercial aircraft.

After a South Korean fishing trawler sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea in 2014, Russia requested help from the U.S. Coast guard which sent help immediately.

Russia has been a major contributor to the International Space Station and last month, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques returned from the station in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Despite tensions with China, the Chinese tech giant Huawei is working in partnership with Canadian internet providers to launch satellites to improve connectivity in Canada’s north. Without the new satellites, two million Canadians in Arctic communities don’t have reliable high-speed internet.

Unlike the old technology, the new satellites will be placed in a much lower orbit. Traditional satellites have two problems. One is the low bandwidth because of the curvature of the Earth. The other is “latency,” that’s the delay in getting signals to and from the satellite. You may have noticed it in TV broadcasts where the foreign correspondent stands in silence after being asked a question –they are waiting for signals to bounce around the globe.

The Trudeau government recently announced that it is investing $85 million to build a Low Earth Orbit constellation of 120 satellites in Canada’s north. At only 1,000 kilometres above the ground, latency is not a problem and since the satellites can be networked, bandwidth is as good as optical fibre.

It’s a good investment, not only because it connects Canada’s rapidly warming North with the rest of the country but because the sale of high-speed internet service a lucrative business.

The pride, politics and tokenism of Indigenous land acknowledgements

While some Indigenous Canadians take pride in the acknowledgment that we live on their un-surrendered lands, others are not so sure.

The facts of our occupation are clear from both a legal and archaeological standpoint. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Indigenous land rights have not been extinguished in the Delgamuukw decision of 1997.

Indigenous archaeological sites in Kamloops. Image: Kamloops this Week

The discovery of human remains beneath a Kamloops street that predate European colonizers are further evidence of the first people who lived in the Thompson valley. Kamloops archaeologist Joanne Hammond says:

“The area along the river from Kamloops to Chase has been called the ‘cradle of Secwepemc culture’ –cultural traits that first appeared here are found through Secwepemcúl’ecw [Secwepemc territory]. Among B.C. cities, Kamloops is only second to Victoria in number of known archaeological sites within 10 kilometres of the city centre (Kamloops This Week, July 26, 2019).”

Land acknowledgments take on a ceremonial quality in the opening of parliament, school days, concerts, university events and even hockey games.

While some land acknowledgments are well-thought out, others border on the silly, like the recent one at Toronto’s Pride that didn’t even mention First Nations at all. It included vague statements, such as “no matter what part of Mother Earth our family originates from, we all have a relationship and a responsibility to the land. Let’s build a healthy relationship together.”

A panel of three Indigenous leaders spoke about Toronto Pride’s statement and land acknowledgments with the host of CBC’s The Current, Megan Williams (July 2, 2019).

Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer at Ryerson University:

“I think I was, for me it was a little bit absurd I guess. Yeah it’s a token gesture that ultimately can become symbolic, merely symbolic and meaningless.”

Sheila Cote-Meek, Anishinaabe and associate VP at Laurentian University, agreed that they are token gestures and added:

“I think we should be doing them but being more thoughtful about how we do them. . .”

Emily Riddle, Vancouver writer from the Alexander First Nation in Treaty 6 territory in Alberta, said some Indigenous people welcome them:

“I think for lots of indigenous people, particularly in the interior, they would say it means a lot to hear that their territory is being recognized in their presence.”

Politics puts those Indigenous Canadians who doubt the sincerity of land acknowledgements in the uncomfortable position of being on the same side of the issue as Conservatives.

Under the new Alberta government, land acknowledgements are now a matter of “personal preference.” The Minister of Indigenous Relations for the United Conservative Party of Alberta, Rick Wilson, says:

“We’re kind of leaving it up to everybody on their own accord; it depends on the situation (Edmonton Journal, May 29, 2019).”

Emily Riddle was asked what she thought of the Alberta government’s approach:

“I don’t think that they have any intention to acknowledge or move forward with treaties. I know Jason Kenney said in his campaign that there are no treaty lands in Alberta. So it would be disingenuous for him to do acknowledgements in my opinion.”

Alberta is located on Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 territories.

Canada’s Roma

The Romani people of Canada have been met with both fascination and suspicion.

image: from film “Opre Roma: Gypsies in Canada”

For more than a century, Canadians have been fascinated by the colourful bands of “Gypsies” that roamed the country. There was a circus-like feeling when they came to town. Dressed in colourful costumes, women danced, told fortunes, sold herbs, and worked as midwives. Men made and sold copper utensils and furniture. Gypsies must have been  a rare source of entertainment in frontier towns like Kamloops.

Historical entries of the Roma are brief says Professor Cynthia Levine-Rasky, author of Writing the Roma:

“In historical almanacs, most encounters are discussed only fleetingly, such as the report of the “Gypsy show put on in Kamloops in 1898, or in description of visitors who dressed ’like Gypsies,’ or in the numerous sightings of nearby campsites (Canada’s History Magazine, June/July 2018).”

While these Gypsies were never identified as Roma, the nature of their activities closely corresponded with the people. The Roma liked the myth that the name “Gypsy” projected, so it’s understandable.

“Gypsy” obscures the people’s origin. In Europe, the Gypsy label was given to the Roma because they were thought to originate in Egypt. The Roma never identified a homeland. Their origins were further obscured as they took surnames from whatever country they landed in.

We now know that the Roma originated from Northern India in the eleventh century. Their exodus to North Africa and Europe suggests they may have been refugees from the spread of Islam into India.

In Canada, the most common subgroups of Roma came from the United Kingdom, Russia, and Hungary. In some respects, the Roma were like other ethnic group. “Also like other groups, the Roma have been misunderstood or regarded with suspicion,” says Levine-Rasky. “But, unlike with people with other ethnicities, the myth of the Gypsy travelled alongside the Roma wherever they went.”

One attack on the Roma is seared into their historical memory. The Roma settled into a camp near Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, in 1935. Women told fortunes in town and the men, who were skilled mechanics, did odd jobs.

In the middle of the night five drunken miners attacked the camp, intent on raping two Romani girls; Bessie and Millie Demetro.  A reporter wrote: “hardly a member of the band escaped the carnage that followed.” Their father, Frank Demetro, fired a gunshot into the air to scare them off. He was arrested for firing another shot that killed one of the miners. Demetro was taken to hospital to care for his injuries and placed under RCMP guard. Frank’s brother Russel, fearing that Frank would not survive prison because he was diabetic, admitted to the shooting. Russel was tried but acquitted on a plea of self-defence.

Canadian Roma commemorate the event with a song in which Frank appeals to his wife Kezha: “Kezha, de ma ki katrinsa te kosav a rat pa mande (Kezha, give me your apron to wipe the blood from me)”

But don’t look for bands of Gypsies roaming the countryside today.

“When we learn of their historical travails, however, the Gypsy myth is challenged, just as it is when we encounter the Roma in Canada today –a dynamic and pluralistic community numbering about one hundred thousand and encompassing citizens of many faiths, occupations, and statuses,” says Levine-Rasky.

 

Canada’s first constitution of 1763

 

More than a century before the confederation of Canada in 1867, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a basis of government in North America. Peter Russell, in his book Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests, calls the proclamation “the formal beginning of Canada’s constitution,” and adds:

King George III. Image: Wikipedia

“Accordingly, the Proclamation called for that essential institution of Anglo-American liberal government: a representative assembly. This plan of government reflected the fact that, in terms of constitutional and representative government, Britain was the most advanced European state of the day. …France was still an absolute, not a constitutional monarchy (p.29)”

It’s odd now to think of England as a model for government now, but at the time a progressive King George III empowered the colonies of North America to form government comprised of citizens empowered to: “make laws for the Public, Peace, Welfare, and good Government.” Colonial courts were set up as well for hearing “all cases, criminal as well as civil, according to Law and Equity, and as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England.”

The force of the proclamation reverberated through the centuries.

The first shock wave was the revolution of the thirteen colonies of what is now the United States. They were not happy with the lines drawn on the map of North America by the King. Land west of the colonies as far as the Mississippi was assigned to Indigenous peoples. The thirteen colonies saw the proclamation as hemming them in from expansion to the west. Two years after the proclamation, the American Revolution started which led to their independence in 1776.

Treatment of Quebec had a better outcome. With the winds of independence drifting through the colonies, Britain decided to accommodate their new colony of Quebec. Wisely so, since Catholic French-speakers outnumbered the English. In the Quebec Act of 1774, French property and civil law was introduced and French-speaking Catholics held public offices.

Recognition of Indigenous land title took a little longer. Two and one-half centuries later, Canada is finally recognizing Indigenous entitlement laid out in the proclamation. Reactionary Canadian governments ignored the proclamation and proceeded with the subjugation and assimilation of Canada’s first peoples.

As one of the three pillars of the founding of Canada, Indigenous peoples were left out of the British North American Act in 1867. The French and English pillars were there says Russell:

“One of the first challenges for the infant Canadian federation was its relations with the absent pillar, the Indigenous peoples (p.163).”

Two centuries after the proclamation, patient Indigenous leaders reminded us of their exclusion. George Manual was one of those who rallied against the failed colonization of his people. As former chief of the Neskonlith band of the Shuswap nation and participant of the residential school in Kamloops, he collaborated with Michael Posluns in writing The Fourth World: An Indian Reality in 1974.

In a landmark court decision, against the wishes of the Province of B.C., the court ruled that Nisga’a territory had never been extinguished. We live on unceded Indigenous land in most of B.C.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is referred to in section 25 of our Constitution Act of 1982. And on the 250th anniversary of the proclamation in 2013 was celebrated in Ottawa with a meeting of Indian leaders and Governor-General David Johnston.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

 

The beaver is Canadian

The beaver exemplifies what it means to be Canadian. Rachel Poliquin puts it this way:

“Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness (Canada’s History magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017).”

    image: wordartsme.com

The beaver has not always been regarded as exceptionally hard-working. Canada’s indigenous people viewed them as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers but not any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines.

Eurasian beavers were hunted to near extinction. Ancient physicians regarded the beaver’s smelly sent organs as a potent medicine. Beavers would give off the smell to repel attackers, a bit like a skunk. Mistaking the castor sacs that held the scent for testicles, early Europeans thought the beavers bit off their testicles and shed their fur to escape capture. The Greek fabulist Aesop had this to say:

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free of danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for one already stripped to the skin.”

Eurasian beavers were seen by Christian moralists as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence.

Beavers were so rare in Europe, that by the time that Europeans arrived in North America, they saw them for the first time. They were so impressed by the rodent’s architectural abilities that they imagined a beaver society that could achieve such wonders.

The seventeenth-century French aristocrat, Niclolas Deny, outlined what he saw as a beaver society in which specific tasks were assigned such as cutting down trees, making stakes, with the oldest carrying dirt with their tails. The construction of beaver mansions was overseen by foremen. Beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, ensured a high standard of construction. If any workers were neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duties,” wrote Denys.

Denys’ views mirrored the society in which he grew up. Great public works could only be achieved by keeping the grunt labourers in line. Whipping them into submission was an accepted means of accomplishing a greater good.

Europeans wondered what kind of political structure the beavers preferred. Of course, since only rich aristocrats could afford to explore, beavers must have preferred aristocratic overseers.

Aristocratic beaver society served as a model for settler society. Lazy beaver workers would have the fur stripped from their backs, it was imagined, and banished from beaver society to live their lives, exiled, in holes.

This was a convenient tale to tell independence-minded settlers, many who were escaping social upheaval in Europe. It was to keep settlers under the thumb of aristocrats. Poliquin explains:

“Outcast beavers also offered a moral lesson for habitants who were tempted to go primitive and become coureurs de bois. Venturing into the wilderness to seek their fortune in furs, coureurs de bois were naturally vilified by the ruling classes and bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of societies and acquired a taste for wandering and its associated vices. Repent now, the fable almost warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.”

Modern Canadian beavers have escaped the tyranny of aristocracy and live in well-insulated homes. They come out of their dens to vote every four years. Unpretentious, yet a bit smug, they imagine their society to be better than others such as the one to the south.